Deputy Editor Isobel Radakovic reviews Loyle Carner’s latest album, describing it as ‘his most mature work yet’
Content Warning: This article discusses sensitive themes such as racism.
To say I am a big fan of Loyle Carner’s music would be a massive understatement, so to hear that he was coming out with his highly-anticipated third album, hugo, after taking time away after the birth of his first child, was the nicest surprise. Carner has spoken out previously about not feeling as though he fits in with most other UK rappers, being given the moniker of ‘Mr Nice Guy’ within the scene, but his unconventionalities are what have made me, and so many others, such fans. Coming under more of the ‘chill rap’ umbrella, Carner is known for mixing genres and embracing a variety of musical influences. hugo is a continuation of this foolproof formula, while also introducing a darker side to Carner’s discography, which I believe to be his most mature work yet.
Named after his father’s car, hugo to an extent feels like a letter from Carner to his dad, who he was estranged from for many years but has recently reconnected with. However, the album is so much more than that, as Carner really focuses on including devastating lyrics about wanting to break the legacy of abandonment and negativity that his father left behind, as he notes in ‘Pollyfilla’, the ninth track of the album, when he speaks about wanting to ‘break the chains in the cycle’.
Family has always been such a strong theme in Carner’s music, particularly his closeness with his mum, but hugo explores his fraught relationship with his father, after making a trip to Guyana to explore his roots, which are seen to be a massive influence throughout the album but especially prevalent in the track ‘Georgetown’. The third of 10 songs on the album, ‘Georgetown’ covers topics that Carner speaks on multiple times throughout hugo, such as recently becoming sober, and of his mixed heritage and the struggles he has faced because of it.
hugo only has features on two of its tracks, but both ‘Homerton’ (feat. Jnr Williams & Olivia Dean) and ‘Blood on my Nikes’ (feat. Wesley Joseph & Athian Akec) are solid mid-album songs that break up the heaviness of the first three tracks and help to introduce a more soulful vibe to the latter half of the album. ‘Homerton’ has much more of a jazz feel to it, which brings a very different pace when compared to the frenetic, almost rageful feel of the earlier songs, and both Williams and Dean have such soothing voices that really help to calm things down. I was very excited to see Wesley Joseph feature on this album, as I am a big fan, and I felt that his deep voice really helped to strengthen this haunting feel that ‘Blood on my Nikes’ had.
The spoken-word sample at the end by Athian Akec really resonated with me, being a very powerful speech on knife crime and linking it to the issues of austerity and poverty experienced by minority communities. The final line of the outro – ‘Never has so much been lost by so many / because of the indecision of so few’ – speaks to these wider issues and presents the harsh truths to all that listen to the track.
The album is very race-centric, definitely more so than his previous albums, as his journey to Guyana brought about interactions with this other side of his heritage that he hadn’t previously experienced. It is certainly at the forefront of the album, and listening to hugo start to finish, I felt as though I was witnessing Carner having this reckoning with himself about his identity and sense of self. This is especially seen in how ‘Hate’, the first track of the album, and ‘HGU’ are so contrasting tonally.
‘Hate’, the first single released off of the album, feels palpably angry, with a much heavier beat than most of Not Waving, But Drowning, his sophomore album, which had a much slower and softer feel to it. It is certainly a very strong start to the album, and introduces topics that will continue to be addressed throughout, like Carner’s struggle with ADHD. Carner doesn’t shy away from admitting some very personal struggles, with the line ‘I fear the colour of my skin’ being repeated throughout the track, and this unearthing of trauma remains constant from start to finish.
‘HGU’, on the other hand, portrays the outcome of Carner’s catharsis, in using hugo as his outlet for years’ worth of pent-up emotions. It is tonally very different from the first few tracks of the album especially, with their use of heavy drum beats being contrasted here with a much more upbeat tune. The lyrics reflect this turning point for Carner too, with his repeating of ‘I forgive you, I forgive you, I forgive you’. You can hear the difference in his voice, the newfound lightness felt by this release of tension, and it is astounding.
Carner really takes the listener on a profound journey with hugo, from the suffering caused by this resentment towards his father and the larger problems felt in existing as a non-white man in this country, and I really think it has been constructed so beautifully in this album.
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